By Morris Phillips
A step slow, a play short: it was a pattern that played out to BYU’s detriment throughout the Fight Hunger Bowl Friday night. While the Cougars acquitted themselves well, riding the spirit and running of quarterback Taysom Hill, when it came time to make a critical play, the Cougars didn’t while Washington did.
In the first half alone, the Cougars amassed 297 yards in offense, but never led. Four offensive trips inside the UW 30-yard line produced three field goals and one touchdown on the initial push. In the second half, a big interception had BYU poised to get back in it, but an incomplete pass and a sack preceded Justin Sorenson’s 44-yard missed field goal.
ESPN commentator Dave Pasch called BYU’s offense in the first half that enjoyed huge advantage in plays and yardage “dominant.” In truth, the Hill-led attack was relevant, but ultimately ineffective.
“That to me was two even matched teams,” an upbeat BYU coach Bronco Mendehall recounted. “I thought we had time of possession. I thought we had ball control, et cetera. We weren’t able to put it into the end zone, maybe on a couple of occasions.”
“When we get down there, we have to execute at a really high level, and we didn’t do that. We had a couple of penalties that really killed us.”
And special teams were clearly no help. After the Cougars drove 88 yards in 12 plays—including a gutsy fourth down run and conversion out of punt formation at their own 20—to tie it, 7-7, Washington got a 100-yard kickoff return from ultra speedy John Ross that put BYU behind once again. After the Cougars narrowed the gap to 14-13, Jessie Callier’s 47-yard kickoff return set up the Huskies for another touchdown.
The BYU offense that moved the ball so effectively in the first half, bogged down after halftime. Hill’s favored slant route to receivers Cody Hoffman and Skyler Ridley was effectively taken away by the Huskies crowding the box. While Hill continued to find running holes—he would amass a career-high 31 rush attempts—UW dared the athletic quarterback to throw, and more often than not, Hill couldn’t connect.
The Cougars offense that amassed all the yardage in the first half went without a major push into Washington territory after halftime. Washington’s touchdown on the initial drive of the half effectively put the game away.
Even more humbling for BYU were the marquee individual matchups that left many of BYU stars humbled. All-American linebacker Kyle Van Noy played well in his final game as a Cougar, but when UW back Bishop Sankey was in his sights at the 11-yard line in the second quarter, Van Noy was left grasping for air as Sankey sidestepped the Cougar and then raced into the end zone for a 21-13 Washington lead.
In the third quarter stand out linebacker Uani Unga was matched up with UW’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins near the goal line, but the massive 6’6”, 280-pound tight end had the clear size and reach advantage when quarterback Keith Price whizzed a pass to Seferian-Jenkins in the end zone that put UW up 28-16 and left Unga an arm’s length short.
Hoffman, an NFL prospect at wide receiver, made plays in the middle of field, hauling in 12 catches for 167 yards, but his turn as passer didn’t fare well. Hoffman received a pitch and threw a short out to Hill, but Hoffman took a shot to the ribs as he threw and was limited for the entire second half.
In all, a tough night for the Cougars, but also a reminder of what challenges life as a big-time independent will entail. BYU left the Mountain West conference after 2012 for greater television exposure and the opportunity to play a national schedule and better pursue an opportunity at an elusive national championship.
But while a hand-picked schedule may garner exposure, the Cougars will have to recruit the best players to compete at such a lofty level. On Friday night, the best athletes on the field wore purple and gold. A humbling loss to a middle-of-the-pack Pac-12 team in Washington could not provide a better illustration of the Cougars’ conundrum: the Cougars need to win big to gain national acclaim, but those wins will clearly be more difficult to grasp outside the Mountain West and squarely on top of the national stage.